The Reformation: A Protestant Perspective

In many protestant churches, the month of October is the time when the sixteenth-century Reformation is observed and celebrated. The Sunday nearest to October 31st is usually designated “Reformation Sunday“, since it was in late October 1517 that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was that act that sparked the Protestant Reformation, which became a firestorm that spread and swept through Europe, threatening the very foundations of the Roman Catholic Church, and ultimately dividing the Church. My own faith tradition, the Presbyterian Church, stands in a long line of Protestant denominations that has roots in the Reformation and celebrates the contributions of so many reformers, not just Martin Luther, including many martyrs.

Furthermore, my personal family ancestors on both sides, maternal and paternal, were French Huguenots who fled France seeking freedom from religious persecution, and some of them were Minutemen in the American Revolutionary War, to seek and secure not only the freedom of religion but political freedom as well. Therefore, as a Presbyterian minister with these ancestral roots, having served congregations in three different Presbyterian denominations in the United States during more than sixty years of pastoral ministry, as well as a United Reformed Church of England congregation in the UK, I always led each of those churches every October in an observance of Reformation Sunday and paid tribute to those brave and passionate reformers to whom we owe such a great debt, and whose example should challenge and encourage all leaders in Christ’s Church to take much more seriously the Reformation motto, “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei” (i.e. “The Church reformed always to be reformed in accord with the word of God”).

Bibles were not so plentiful in the sixteenth century, and the Church had no real interest in seeing the scriptures put into the languages of the common people who were not capable of interpreting scripture correctly, and would only lead to confusion and conflict, division and discord in the Body of Christ. Furthermore, the Church itself was seen as the final authority in theological and doctrinal matters, rather than the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. For after all, it was the Church that had protected and preserved the scriptures, and the Church alone that was entrusted with the task of seeing that “the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God” was proclaimed in purity and truth. When Martin Luther was led by Almighty God to translate the New Testament into German, so it could be placed in the hands of believers for their nurture and growth toward maturity in growth (i.e. growth in their knowledge of God revealed most fully in the person of the historical Jesus, revealed in the writings of the New Testament as the unique and solitary Son of God, the only Head of the Church), Luther himself was convicted by the Holy Spirit as he was translating Paul’s Letter to the Romans that the Church was in dire need of theological and doctrinal reform and a return to trust in the inspiration and authority of scripture — especially the recovery of its greatest treasure, the gospel of salvation according to the Apostles, especially Paul who was the greatest theologian of the Early Church, which is the GoodNews of “justification by grace alone through faith alone” (i.e. not salvation deserved or earned because of good works, but received as a grace gift through faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of all our sins).

The door of the Wittenberg Cathedral was often used as a bulletin board, so it was not unusual to see Martin Luther nailing something there to be read by all those entering the Castle Church, or by other curious and interested citizens just passing by. We are hard-pressed to say what the 95 Theses were all about, but it is significant that Luther’s post was given the title “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” That may sound dull to most people today, but it was far from dull to the informed members of the church, not only in Wittenberg but across Europe, all the way to the Vatican and papal authorities in Rome. Martin Luther was calling and challenging the church fathers to a theological debate. He condemned the sale of “Indulgences“, a practice based on the assumption that the guilt of sinners could be forgiven by God in exchange for the purchase of papal papers acknowledging one’s gift. The money raised by this method would be used to help with the enormous expense of building Saint Peters Cathedral in Rome. However, although one’s guilt would be forgiven, there was still the issue of punishment for sins committed. But that punishment could be reduced through great generosity, as well as good works and prayers, as directed and determined by a priest. Luther knew that belief and practice was contrary to scripture, that only God could forgive sins, that only God could determine what punishment, that forgiveness of sins follows genuine repentance our sins deserve, that only the blood of Jesus Christ could cover all our sins, that we are not saved by anything we have done or could ever do, but only by what God has already done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of his one and only Son, that we are not saved by our good works but for good works, that we are not saved by our Christian character and conduct, but for Christian character and conduct that is pleasing to God.

Luther’s rejection of the practice of indulgences, and his insistence that there is no forgiveness of sins without genuine repentance (the Greek NT word is “metanoia“, which means more than being sorry for what we have done; it means being sorry enough to stop doing it). That word literally means “a change of mind, an “about-face”, a turning from sin and a turning to God in confession and penitence, praying “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” In his 95 Theses, Luther affirmed, on the authority of God’s Word, that God wills “the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Thesis 1). In his following theses Luther denied that priests have the power to forgive sins, and dared to write “It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters” (thesis 52).  The Pope and bishops responded by denouncing Luther’s theses and demanding his silence. His response has often been quoted by other reformers, when he lifted the Bible he held in his hand, saying, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” He insisted that his critics and judges prove him wrong by the use of scripture that would refute his own affirmations of faith.

Initially, the Church fathers considered it no more than a monkish squabble created by an obscure priest teaching at a minor university, trying to make a name for himself. However, what they had at first dismissed as abstract theological quibbles became a serious assault on the truth and purity of the Church’s faith and practice, denying the Church’s power to grant remission of sins for the purchase of papal indulgences. It was not Luther’s intent to exalt himself or to divide the Church, but his combativeness and refusal to recant, as well as the Church’s unwillingness to consider debating the doctrinal issues raised by Luther, would inevitably produce a schism that not only made Luther a prominent figure in Christendom but led to what became, as of this date, 500 years of continuing Church divisions.

Although Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” 502 years ago, October 2019 does not mark the beginning (i.e. the anniversary) of the conviction that Christ’s Church (i.e the Church mortal, the visible Church) is continually in need of reform and renewal. Luther was not the first, and would certainly not be the last, reformer. There were not only other reformers in the sixteenth century, such as William Tyndale in England but plenty of reformers before and after Martin Luther: Pope Leo I, Gregory the Great and Gregory VII, who accomplished major reforms in the Church hundreds of years before Luther; also Benedict, Francis of Assisi, John Huss, and John Wycliffe who were reformers in their lifetimes of service to Christ’s Church in the centuries beyond Luther’s time, as well as some more familiar to most of us who sought both theological and ecclesiastical reform, some successfully and some not: Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Wesley and others.” Nearer to our own time we could also list a few who are well known for their deep convictions, bold witness, courageous protests (both theological and political), and their call for reform and a return to the biblical demand for costly Christian discipleship, including renewed emphasis on the social implications of the Gospel:: Bonhoeffer, Pope John Paul, and the current pope, Francis.

The enduring accomplishments and contributions of all such reformers should not only be remembered and acknowledged but celebrated with great thanksgiving, including the witness of the martyrs who stood firm and steadfast in their faith in spite of intense persecution, even unto death. We owe a debt to them that can never be repaid in full, but we can make payments on that debt by following their example and refusing to settle for a more comfortable and less costly brand of Christianity, which is being proclaimed and practiced in our own time — a form of Christianity that has been labeled “The Laodicean Syndrome” (see Revelation 3:14-22). In his “Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor” the resurrected and glorified Christ included a scathing letter to the church at Laodicea, a comfortable and complacent congregation, whose members were rich and “did not need a thing” (3:17). But Christ, Head of the Church, knew the weaknesses as well as the strength of every part of his body. He was “the true vine” and knew which branches had produced good fruit, bad fruit, or no fruit at all (John 15;1-8). He told the members of the church at Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either one or the other, but because you are lukewarm I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say you have acquired great wealth and have need of nothing, but you are poor, pitiful, wretched, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:15-17). This is interpreted by some biblical scholars as “The last stage of church history, the last phase of a dry, dull, and dying religious institution.” Are we there yet?

Look at the decline of so many so-called “mainline” denominations. Who can deny that the contemporary church is too lukewarm, too many believers are neither cold nor hot? There is a lack of passion and a lack of power. How many Christians today, those who still participate in corporate worship with other believers, who make occasional contributions to the work of the church (i.e. the church of their choice, which in many instances is the church they grew up in, the church of their parents, and perhaps their grandparents), believe they “have need of nothing”? How many twenty-first-century Christians congratulate themselves on their present state of the soul with monotonous regularity, believing that their lukewarmness, their lack of passion as followers of Jesus, will be acceptable to God? They believe that because they have kept the ten commandments (at least for the most part), God will say “Well done, my good and faithful servant”?

How many members of the contemporary church are comfortable and complacent in their faith because they believe their lifestyle will be acceptable to God at the final judgment for they have never murdered anyone, have never committed adultery, have  never robbed or stolen, have never lied (well, except for some “little white lies”), have never coveted what someone else had, have never borne false witness against another, have honored their father and mother, and have also made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ? Therefore, they contend they “do not need a thing.”  How many in an average church on any given Sunday morning are self righteous, proud of their own virtues compared to so many others who are less active in the worship and life of Christ’s Church, and are therefore guilty of congratulating themselves just like those lukewarm Laodiceans — not knowing that they are “pitiful and poor, blind and naked” in our Lord’s eyes?

Is it possible that we are among those who are, “neither cold nor hot”, too comfortable and complacent? This one thing I know: all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus have a lot to learn from the reformers, and even more to learn from our risen and reigning Lord. Read all seven of Christ’s letters to the churches of Asia Minor in the first century, (Rev. 3), and then consider the weaknesses and strengths of the church in the twenty-first century in the light of both Christ’s words of commendation and condemnation—then take a long hard look at the quality of your own Christian character and conduct, your own witness and works, your own convictions and courage, your own passion or lack of it).

If Christ was writing a letter to your church, and to you, what do you think he would say?

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